Documentary explores 'bloody Breathitt' feuds more deadly than Hatfield-McCoy

jbrammer@herald-leader.comSeptember 3, 2012 

Jerry Deaton became interested in the Breathitt County feuds after reading Breathitt: A Guide to the Feud Country in the Capitol law library in 1986. It contained information about a relative's death.

The Hatfield-McCoy feud that raged in southeastern Kentucky and West Virginia from 1863 to 1891 is one of the most famous family feuds in American history. With attention to it revived this year by a popular TV miniseries on the History channel, the feud has become a tourism draw for the mountainous region.

But there was a feud in Eastern Kentucky that involved more families, killed more people and attracted more media attention at the time.

"The Breathitt County feuds helped give rise to the image of the stereotypical Eastern Kentucky hillbilly and an area of the country known for frontier lawlessness," Jerry Deaton said.

Deaton, 48, of Frankfort, has dedicated more than 25 years to studying the feuds of Breathitt County. With the assistance of Pinnacle Productions in Lexington, he is gearing up to release a 50-minute documentary film about the deadly skirmishes that lasted from 1870 to 1912.

The Feuds of Bloody Breathitt: Kentucky's Untold Story will have its premiere at 6 p.m. Sept. 20 at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort. A trailer for the documentary may be viewed at Jerrydeaton.com.

"Probably no one knows more about the Breathitt County feuds than Jerry Deaton," said state historian James Klotter, who teaches at Georgetown College and was interviewed by Deaton for the film but has not yet seen it.

Deaton, an author who is semi-retired after working for the state Legislative Research Commission and the Kentucky League of Cities, takes the stories about the feuds personally. He is a descendant of one of the people involved in the feuds, which usually started over petty grievances.

Deaton, who grew up in Breathitt County, was working for the LRC in Frankfort in 1986 when he took a break in the Capitol law library.

"I like old stuff. I looked at the old book collection there, and found a book about the feuds of bloody Breathitt," he said.

Deaton found in the book that one of his relatives had killed another relative in 1895.

"Nobody in my family had ever talked about that, and I started asking questions," he said.

The late Kentucky historian Thomas Clark, Deaton said, told him that Kentucky was prime for the feuds because it had 120 "little kingdoms," better known as counties.

"There was no state police force at the time," Deaton said. "Authority had broken down, people in Eastern Kentucky were isolated in the mountains, and they pretty much had to take care of matters themselves. Armed mobs called regulators became the norm."

The lawlessness led to newspaper and magazine articles around the world.

The Lexington Herald became so incensed about the feuds that it asked the state legislature to abolish Breathitt County because it was giving the state a bad name, Deaton said.

While the Hatfield-McCoy feud claimed more than a dozen members of two families, the Breathitt feuds involved about six families and led to more deaths, probably more than 100, Deaton said.

The Hatfield-McCoy feud became more famous than those in Breathitt and several other counties, said historian Klotter, because it involved a U.S. Supreme Court decision, occurred in two states, was popularized by dime novels, and several of the participants were tried in Louisville with its news media.

When starting to make his film about the Breathitt County feuds four years ago, Deaton said he encountered some county residents who still were reluctant to talk about the violence of more than 100 years ago.

But most people became enthusiastic about it when they realized "I wanted to do it right, but some still never talked about it," he said.

Deaton said his film, "does not point any fingers, does not call anyone a villain."

Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Mary C. Noble of Lexington is the film's narrator.

"It's a great idea for Jerry Deaton to tell this story," Noble said. "Breathitt is my home county, too, and my grandmother's brother was one of the victims in the feuds."

Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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